A wild elephant bearing marks of gunshot wounds and electrocution was found dead at the reserve forest in Chattogram’s Lohagara in November last year as locals retaliated after attacks on settlements.
Elephants were struggling for their habitats and corridors in densely populated Bangladesh. Then came the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, further shrinking the spaces for the wild animals.
Some elephants are dying of old age, while some others are moving across the border.
The body of an elephant, aged over 60, was recovered from the slope of a hill in Sherpur’s Nalitabari Upazila in September last year.
Two elephants swam across the Naf River into Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf from Myanmar recently.
With activists calling for steps for the preservation of the elephants in the country, wildlife experts say preserving the forests and saving the corridors to clear paths for elephants to move must be done.
Bangladesh is celebrating the World Elephant Day under the theme - “Save the Elephants to Save the Forests” on Thursday as the population of the majestic creature has shrunken below 300.
Chattogram and the Hill Tracts; Chunti, Teknaf, Fasiakhali and Pablakhali of Cox’s Bazar are sanctuaries for elephants while they also roam around Kaptai National Park, Bakkhali, Rezu, Fulcchari, Idgar and Marisa.
Some elephants temporarily migrate to Jamalpur’s Jhinaigati, Mymensingh’s Haluaghat, Durgapur, Sylhet’s Baralekha and areas around Chattogram Hill Tracts from Myanmar, and India’s Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya states. They reside in Bangladesh for over a month before returning to India.
According to the last survey, Bangladesh has 250-300 wild elephants. Several have died and baby elephants have been born since then. “So we have around 250 elephants now,” said Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury, chief conservator of forests at the Forest Department.
“The elephants particularly roam in areas around Cox’s Bazar, Chattogram, Bandarban, Rangamati, Khagrachhari. Their habitats have been destroyed. The Rohingya settlements have transgressed their habitats and corridors.”
He said the authorities are working towards three goals - reducing the hostility between elephants and men, setting up more habitats for them and clearing their path of movement.
Tapan Kumar Dey, executive director of Nature Conservation Society and former deputy chief forest conservator of the government, said elephant-human conflicts have been on the rise.
Effective steps are needed to stop these conflicts in Cox’s Bazar, Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tracts, Sherpur district and areas around Jamalpur, he said.
The Rohingya settlements in Teknaf and Ukhia in recent years have damaged some 2,500 hectares of elephant habitats. The Teknaf-Ukhia-Naikkhongchhari elephant corridor has also been severely damaged.
Due to the migration, Tapan said, 20-30 elephants always roam the forests along the borders in Sherpur and Jamalpur, so fatalities from conflicts are growing.
The authorities have declared Chunti, Pablakhali, Teknaf, Sangu, Dudhpukuria-Dhopachari, Fasiakhali and the National Kaptai Park elephant sanctuaries, but people have settled down and are farming in these areas.
In 2020, as many as 21 elephants and 33 people died in the conflicts while 15 others were injured, according to Tapan.
Anam Moazzem Hossain, the founder chairman of Save the Nature of Bangladesh, said Madhurchhara, Balukhali, Palangkhali, Shafiullahkata, Jamtala, Baghgona, Karangkhali, Unsiprang were notable sanctuaries for elephants.
But Rohingya settlements have divided the elephant herd of the region. As many as 40 of 68 elephants reside in south of Teknaf, while the rest live in Himchhari.
Elephant attacks have left 13 Rohingya refugees killed so far since the mass influx of 2017.
PRIORITIES AND EFFORTS
Md Anwarul Islam, a retired professor of Dhaka University’s zoology department, said elephants need huge space to live due to their size and herding. “Our elephant population has been stable for a long time, but there are worries how long the situation will last."
Anwarul, who is also the chief executive of Wildlife Trust Bangladesh, said the authorities are trying to preserve the elephants despite limitations, but the locals must be involved in the process.
For this to happen, a coordinated plan is needed, said Rakibul Amin, resident representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “The forests must be saved for unhindered movement of elephants. The Forest Department cannot do this alone.”
The IUCN is working to stop human-elephant conflict in the Rohingya camp areas. It has trained over 600 refugees and 30 locals since 2018.
Elephants came near the camps as many as 284 times in this period, but only one or two homes were damaged while casualties could be averted due to the training, he claimed.
“Both humans and elephants were saved. People would have suffered had the elephants faced danger. No one has died in the camps because of the coordinated approach adopted.”
“Now volunteers guard the camps overnight and take measures to drive the elephants away when they come along.”
Chief Conservator of Forests Amir said trees were planted after the Rohingya destroyed the forests for logs to build shelters in 2017, but the woodlands could not be restored.
“It will be possible to restore the corridor once the Rohingya return and we get back the place.”
He said the Forest Department is conducting a survey on elephant movement in Cox’s Bazar, Chattogram, Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari.
After identifying their habitats and corridors, the authorities will take a project to enrich them with plantation of elephant food, he said. He hoped the programme will improve the situation in three to four years.